2011, September: Generations

The lesson is from the eleventh chapter of the book of Proverbs, the twenty-ninth verse. He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind.

I never met any of my grandparents, or knew much about them except that they were immigrants. My father’s father had begun the process of Americanization by abandoning his foreign surname at Ellis Island. Then my parents turned their back on their parents. I must have asked them about grandparents without getting a good answer, but at some point I just accepted that I knew next to nothing about them.

Long after my mother died, I began to ask questions again, but this time I addressed them to various clerks of birth and death records. My father’s mother, it turned out, had died about 4 blocks from where I was living at the time. I found her grave, but it only made me feel more disconnected from my past.

Then I found my mother’s youngest sister, my Aunt Mary. Mary, it turned out, was a recluse, living alone on a $404 social security check in the house where she and my mother had grown up. I got to know her, and eventually earned enough trust to get her moved into an assisted living facility.

This summer I sold the house and cleaned it out. It was a snapshot of a life frozen in time. There were letters from the health department, expressing regret that Mary would not open the door for them, and listing some phone numbers she could call for help. Hanging in a disused closet was a bare light bulb that looked like Thomas Edison had made it. Incredibly, when I pulled the chain, it glowed. The entire TSA staff of the Grand Rapids, Michigan airport had to inspect it before they let me board the plane with it. There was a huge trunk, really a hope chest. It was very heavy and there was no key. After we got it open we discovered it was full of cheap dishes. Mary explained that she had worked at Woolworth’s as a teenager during the Depression, and Friday was employee discount day. The family had lost their first house and many of their possessions, and so every week Mary brought home a cup or saucer and saved them against the day when they might again have nothing.

In a drawer that had been unopened for decades were three old photographs. They show a peasant family sitting outdoors in front of a building with rough hewn siding. One photo shows a mother and father with a young boy and an infant daughter. Another includes these four plus an old woman who must be of the previous generation, plus five others who must be some sibling’s family. The men are wearing knee-high Cossack boots, and the women are in long heavy skirts, their hair wrapped in scarves.

One of the photos had a few Cyrillic words scrawled on the back. I took it over to Harvard’s Ukrainian bibliographer, who kindly provided a translation. It identifies the infant as Rose, Mary’s mother, my grandmother—a thin thread linking me back three generations. The photos were taken in Ukraine in the spring of 1894. They are the only things that survive from the old world.

Pretty much everyone in the photos is staring into the camera with no emotion other than a stern weariness. But one girl, perhaps 13 years old, has a warm, happy smile. Another photo shows her in a different grouping but with the same nice smile. Her mother, sitting next to her, shows no signs of ever having smiled in her life, and yet the two are a matched pair—each has one large hoop earring in her left ear, which I have explained to my daughters is the style on my side of our family. Somehow they have yet to adopt it.

What are the lessons for the future? One is simple and practical. We all have more photographs than ever, and they are all duly tagged on Facebook and Flickr. But our descendants, three or four generations hence, may inherit nothing more of them than the wind whistling through the skeletons of our laptops. So I am resolved to make a paper photo album, for the benefit of people far in the future. And perhaps there are some more consequential things I could do differently in my life, if I thought more often about generations to come.

And then there is that fresh, happy smile, the one on the face of my first cousin, twice removed—a reminder just to smile more. Wouldn’t we rather, a century or more from now, have people wondering why we were so happy?

Finally there is my aunt Mary, who swears she never saw the photos. It’s possible. The house started out full. Then her mother threw out her father; then her bossy big sister went to medical school, left for the east, and never looked back; then her middle sister, a nurse, died by her own hand; then her mother, who never learned to read or write, also died. Mary was alone for a quarter-century until I tracked her down.

Now 93, she is transformed. Her hands are arthritic and she can barely walk and her vision is failing, but she has gained weight and has become something of a party animal. When my family visits her, she swoons over how handsome my son in law is. She tells us that after all the troubled years, she finally feels that she has a family. So the last lesson of my summer vacation is that no matter how much love and happiness we have in our lives, there is always room for more. You may just have to look for it.

September 9, 2011